Many of us would have read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles at some point – if not we’ve probably seen a film adaptation – be it the one directed by Roman Polanski or another version…. There is little doubt that we have all heard of Thomas Hardy and his story of a complicated love triangle between Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare and Alec d’Urberville….which ends in murder, for which Tess takes the consequences…. A story of a beautiful young woman who kills the man who ruined her life….
Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was published in 1891, 35 years after a 16 year old Thomas Hardy witnessed the hanging of convicted murderess Martha Brown, at Dorchester Prison in 1856….
Elizabeth Martha Brown (nee Clark) was born in 1811, to a dairyman, John Clark and mother, Martha…. There is little information available on her early life but she married Bernard Bearn of Powerstock and had two sons who died in infancy….she became a widow in 1851…. Martha met John Brown, some 20 years her junior when they were both working as servants together…. They married – she was an attractive older woman, with beautiful curly hair, looking younger than her years – and she had some money put by – which is perhaps why he married her. They lived in Birdsmoorgate, in the Marshwood Vale, near to Beaminster in Dorset. From the onset it was a turbulent marriage, she was to express regret at marrying him…. Before long she was to suspect him of having an affair with a neighbour, a married woman named Mary Davies….some sources say she actually caught them in bed together…. Understandably they had a row – he stormed out and later came home drunk ~ another arguement ensued…. He lost control and hit her with his whip – this was just too much for Martha, she retaliated and hit him over the head with an axe that they used for chopping coal….
Upon her arrest Martha claimed that a horse had kicked her husband in the head; her story was not believed and a murder charge was brought against her. She came to trial at Dorchester Assizes; a guilty verdict was returned and she was then taken to Dorchester Prison to await execution, which was set for 9 am, Saturday the 9th of August 1856 – just 13 days after the death of her husband….
There was much public sympathy for Martha; the case caused sensationalism in newspapers of the time, sparking debates as to the validity of capital punishment and the treatment of women within the justice system. She was a victim of abuse who had been pushed to the edge….but was caught up in her own lie – that a horse had kicked Brown in the head — meaning that the Home Secretary was to refuse a reprieve; diminished responsibility as a defence did not come into English law until a century later…. Martha admitted her guilt whilst in her prison cell – in her confession she said ~ “I was much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion, on being so abused and struck, I directly seized a hatchet which was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been using to break coal with to keep up the fire and keep his supper warm, and with it I struck him several violent blows on the head. I could not say how many”…. Martha would have been attended by two matrons (female warders) in her prison cell and would have been looked after well; she was also frequently visited by a chaplain, the Reverend D. Clemenston….
Martha’s executioner was to be our old friend William Calcraft ~ Calcraft and his assistant travelled to Dorchester by train the day before to make their preparations. The gallows were erected over the gates of Dorchester Prison the night before….in the place that is today the car park in North Square, Dorchester….
It was a grey drizzling start to the day on Saturday the 9th of August but still a crowd of between three and four thousand gathered to witness the execution; it was quite rare for a woman to hang by this time…. Martha chose to wear a long, close fitting black silk dress ~ she shook hands with the officials at the prison gates and then climbed the first set of steps to the scaffold….a total of 11 steps. Here she was met by Calcraft; he pinioned her arms in front of her and then led her up the remaining 19 steps to the gallows and finally on to the trapdoor. Next he placed a white hood over her head and the noose around her neck…. Calcraft turned and started back down the steps to withdraw the bolts of the trapdoor (this was a time prior to there being a lever) – it was at this point he had to be reminded that he had forgotten to pinion her legs ~ decency always being of the utmost importance in Victorian times…. Calcraft returned and secured her legs ~ she all the while stood poised and with dignity on the trapdoor, with a male warder on either side….
Rain had made the hood covering Martha’s head damp – it clung to her face accentuating her features….and no doubt would have made breathing difficult for her. Her dress would have been moulded to her body – causing her to resemble a statue….
Calcraft descended the steps and pulled the bolts; Martha dropped a foot or two ~ there was a ‘thud’ and for a few seconds she struggled ~ and then lost consciousness. At least she was spared the agonising and humiliating 10 to 20 minutes ordeal that accompanied some of the executions conducted by Calcraft – which he engineered to entertain his audience…. In fact Calcraft was later quoted as saying that he “never saw a criminal die so easily”…. Martha Brown was the last woman to be publicly hanged at Dorchester Prison….
To the 16 year old Thomas Hardy the hanging of Martha was a mesmerising sight. He later wrote “what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back”…. Of the hood that covered her head he said “I saw – they had put a cloth over her face – how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary”…. Hardy’s experience of the day was to haunt him all of his life, he was still writing about it in his eighties. He was morbidly fascinated with executions; just two years after the hanging of Martha he was to witness another….that of 19 year old James Seale. He was executed for the murder of Sara Guppy, aged 23, on the 10th of August 1858. Fire had been discovered billowing from Sara’s cottage and she was found inside with her throat slit – the suspicion fell on Seale….
Thomas Hardy wrote some 70 years later after witnessing Martha’s death that he was ashamed to have been at the hanging. In a letter to his friend, Lady Hester Pinney, he stated “my only excuse being that I was but a youth, and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons”….
In his book Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy does not describe Tess’s death in detail – instead he describes how onlookers watched as a black flag was raised…. “A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag. ‘Justice’ was done”….
Martha Brown would have been buried close to the point of her execution, at the outside walls of the prison precincts. She would have been 1 of 47 buried at Dorchester Prison. The prison closed in 2013, ready to be redeveloped for housing; it was whilst work was being undertaken that human remains were found. The developers wanted to build houses over where the remains lay – but it was actor Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey fame and President of the Hardy Society) who intervened. He wrote to the Bishop of Salisbury urging the Church to take care of the remains buried at the prison. In March 2018 it was ruled that the bodies would be interred in a common grave at nearby Poundbury Cemetery, with a service of Christian committal….
Fellowes actually went as far to say that he would like to see DNA testing carried out to determine Martha Brown’s remains, so that she could be buried in the village churchyard where Thomas Hardy’s heart is interred….
Hardy’s wish was to be buried in his hometown of Stinsford, Dorset….but he was actually laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise his heart was buried at Stinsford….but this is another story….
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You may also enjoy William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….